Mumbai: Back in 2004, the BJP and Shiv Sena shared a warm alliance. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was fighting to be re-elected in the Lok Sabha elections and continue the BJP-led NDA rule at the Centre. He was supported by Sena chief Bal Thackeray.
However, while the Shiv Sena was in the middle of campaigning for the general election, Uddhav Thackeray, Balasaheb’s son and the person at the helm of the party’s affairs in Maharashtra, was allegedly missing in action.
Pramod Mahajan, who was election in-charge at the time and the chief point person for the alliance, needed to speak to Uddhav to discuss a joint election campaign but the Sena leader “remained incommunicado”. After some frantic calls, Mahajan is said to have managed to locate the leader — he was on holiday in some African forest, photographing wildlife.
Over the next 15 years, Uddhav honed his skills as a politician, became more assertive and finally got the CM’s chair in 2019, but an “aloofness and disconnect with the masses and his partymen” appears to have become a trademark of his style of functioning.
Led by Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde, a group of party MLAs has rebelled against Uddhav’s leadership. The rebel camp — which claims to include 42 of the Sena’s 55 MLAs — is currently holed up in Guwahati, in BJP-ruled Assam.
Their demand: That the Shiv Sena break away from the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and join hands with the BJP once again.
Apart from this, in a letter released by the rebel camp Thursday, it was alleged that the MLAs could never meet the CM and had to go “through some people who were close to Uddhav”.
According to Dr Uttara Sahasrabuddhe, a former Mumbai University professor: “In a party like the Shiv Sena, there is no mechanism for grievance redressal. Uddhav lost the connect with his cadre, who were unsatisfied at having to compete with the NCP for hold in BMC, the police, revenue department, and being treated as second citizens in the alliance.”
One major source of resentment among the cadre has been what they describe as the constant targeting they have been subjected to at the hands of BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis.
The former Maharashtra CM, they allege, has been getting the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to target MVA members and the NCP, which handles the home portfolio in the state, has been weak in its response to the BJP. According to Sena members, a major failure on Uddhav’s part is his lack of hold on the home ministry.
In March, for example, state Home Minister Dilip Walse-Patil ordered a CID probe into Fadnavis’ allegation that conspiracies to implicate BJP leaders were hatched by MVA leaders.
On the ideological front, too, many Shiv Sainiks are of the opinion that the party has diluted its hard Hindutva stance under Uddhav, allowing the BJP to replace the Sena in this area.
According to a Shiv Sena MLA close to Shinde, the leader had even broached the topic of the ideological disconnect with Uddhav, but the CM allegedly said “adjustments have to be made in an alliance for running of the government.”
Shiv Sena MP and party spokesperson Sanjay Raut said at a press conference Thursday that “whatever (the MLAs’) demands are will be heard but they need to come to Mumbai within 24 hours”.
Desperately seeking Uddhav
Sena workers have alleged a continuous disconnect with party leader Uddhav.
When Covid struck, Uddhav confined himself to Matoshree, the Thackeray residence in Mumbai, as a precautionary measure, and led the state virtually — coordinating with civil servants to strengthen Maharashtra’s oxygen supply and bed availability, and reaching out to the people via televised addresses.
However, his access to MLAs and partymen allegedly reduced drastically.
This access is believed to have shrunk further after his spinal surgery last year — he did not visit the state secretariat at all between November 2021 and April 2022.
The only way a party member could connect with the CM was through his personal assistant Milind Narvekar and Sena leaders Anil Parab and Sanjay Raut, a Shiv Sena leader told ThePrint.
When NCP leader Sharad Pawar lauded Fadnavis earlier this month after the BJP won the three Rajya Sabha seats it contested in Maharashtra, saying that the performance was largely due to the opposition leader’s ability to win people over, it was seen as a dig at Uddhav’s loss of people connect.
The other small parties in the state that supported the MVA government, too, are believed to feel the same way.
The CM, sources in the Sena said, “outsourced” outreach work to NCP’s Pawar. After Hitendra Thakur, president of the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, publicly voiced his concern over Uddhav being inaccessible, the Sena deputed Sunil Raut and Rajan Vichare to meet him.
Fadnavis, meanwhile, directly called Thakur, asking for his support, sources said. Later, during the Rajya Sabha poll, Thakur allegedly did not vote for the Sena candidate.
An NCP functionary said “despite his stature and seniority, Sharad Pawar still personally calls leaders, while Uddhav leaves it to Narvekar and Raut”. “This doesn’t work in politics,” he added.
A Shiv Sena member, meanwhile, described how Bal Thackaray made an effort to stay connected.
“Balasaheb had many levels of leaders, through whom he would receive daily feedback to stay abreast of what was happening in the party. Uddhav, however, having seen several rebellions from within the party ranks, doesn’t trust most people, except those closest to him,” the leader said. “He has not strengthened his line of communication with the MLAs or the masses to become a people’s leader.”
Sena’s history of rebellion
Eknath Shinde’s rebellion might be the first major one the party is handling since Bal Thackeray’s death, but the Shiv Sena has experienced several revolts in the past.
In 1991, Chhagan Bhujbal, the Shiv Sena’s OBC face, walked out of the party with 18 MLAs in tow. Although 12 returned to the party the same day, Bhujbal went on to pledge his support to the Congress and later joined the NCP.
Around 14 years later, Narayan Rane jumped ship and joined the Congress in 2005, taking along 11 MLAs. He had challenged the Shiv Sena’s decision to name Uddhav as the party’s executive president in 2003. He later joined the BJP and is currently a Union minister.
The next rebel came from within the Thackeray family. In 2006, Uddhav’s cousin Raj Thackeray left the Shiv Sena to form his own party — the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
“If Shinde manages to get the support of more than 35 MLAs, he would manage what even Chhagan Bhujbal couldn’t in 1991. Even Rane managed only 11 MLAs,” said a Shiv Sena member.
“If Shinde leaves the Shiv Sena with 35 MLAs, it will be the biggest break in party history. It will show how Uddhav is losing the plot of Hindutva politics and the BJP is riding in on the tiger to chew up Shiv Sena, especially if it gets votes in the Mumbai-Thane region, a stronghold of the Sena.”
The rise of Aaditya
According to a Sena functionary, “Aaditya Thackeray’s rise within the party has added to the insecurity being felt by some MVA leaders, like the NCP’s Eknath Khadse”.
Many leaders are unhappy about having a more assertive Aaditya at the helm and are not ready to make space for him, sources said.
Leaders have pointed out how NCP leader Sachin Ahir’s defection to the Shiv Sena had ensured an easy victory for Aaditya in 2019 from Worli. Ahir was nominated in the Maharashtra Legislative Council poll in June, instead of a Sena old-timer.
With Subhash Desai, the Industries Minister, not being re-nominated, the Sena veteran might lose the portfolio if the government survives.
Shiv Sena MLAs’ list of woes
Political analysts believe that more than Uddhav’s inaccessibility or internal fissures within the Shiv Sena, it is the Centre’s tactics that are driving the current crisis in the party.
Sanjay Patil, a political researcher with the Mumbai University, said: “It is not just Shinde’s ambition, but also pressure from central agencies like the ED that is working on many of Shiv Sena’s MLAs. Many, like Pratap Sarnaik and Yamini Jadhav, currently under the ED’s eye, are in Shinde’s camp, requesting Uddhav to join hands with the BJP.”
Even Sena MP Bhavana Gawali has been summoned by the ED.
On the administrative front, too, Uddhav’s reliance on the NCP has not gone down well. In March, Shiv Sena MLA Tanaji Sawant, now in Shinde’s camp, had spoken publicly about how the departments headed by Sena ministers “got only 16 per cent of the state budgetary allocation, while the NCP got 57 per cent and the Congress around 30 per cent”.
The budget was presented by the NCP’s Ajit Pawar, who handles the finance portfolio.
Almost 20 MLAs wrote to Uddhav about this but allegedly never received a reply.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sena MLA and Shinde supporter Gulabrao Patil said that “the NCP was ruling the administration while we were getting stepmotherly treatment”.
“Cadre morale was low. We are powerless. The funds are with the NCP, the police are under them. This has been alienating the cadre, but Uddhav saheb did not sense it,” he added.
Shinde, however, did, say sources, adding that he was helped in some measure by Fadnavis. The BJP leader’s initial plan was to target the NCP, but his attempts were foiled by the seasoned Pawar in 2019.
“Shinde is now playing a clever game of making a show of leading the ‘original Shiv Sena’, not diluting Hindutva politics like Uddhav has done to align with the Congress,” said a party functionary. “Shinde is signaling that he is ready to align with the BJP to save Hindutva. He is essentially aiming to win the BMC poll. It would suit the BJP greatly to snatch Sena’s Hindutva base in the BMC and weaken Sena’s hold in Maharashtra politics.”
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)